“I don’t care if I ever do a movie again, but this is my dream movie. Everyone is curious about love.”
In that simple belief, Paper Heart’s star and co-writer Charlyne Yi perfectly captures both the joy and the disappointment in the so-called mockumentary, which arrived on DVD this week. With a DIY-feel and overwhelming, hipster sensibility, the film follows Yi on her cross-country quest to understand love, and why she thinks she might not be capable of it. As Yi interviews myriad people about their romantic experiences, Paper Heart “documents” her own relationship with actor Michael Cera, from an awkward-cute first date to their increasing affection, and beyond.
What’s a little confusing about the film is that it’s made to feel authentic, but it isn’t entirely. As in: Charlyne Yi the real comedian/musician may really think that she has a metaphorical heart malfunction. Michael Cera, the real person who starred in Juno, doesn’t really does meet Charlyne at a party… but he and Charlyne act like they really dig each other (eventually). Confusing matters further, Charlyne’s road trip companion and bestie is a character named Nicholas Jasenovec, played by actor Jake M. Johnson. Paper Heart’s real-life co-writer and director is also named Nicholas Jasenovec.
Once Paper Heart gets going, though, the details don’t always matter. Instead, the intimacy of couples’ personal stories, stripped down and laid bare, radiate with a core sweetness that the cinematic architecture can’t suppress. In one interview, a white-haired, elderly couple are linked arm-in-arm on a sunny, fall day. They recall falling in love when they were still in high school, and how their youthful passion burned when the husband went off to war. In another set of interviews, Charlyne asks a handful of scientists how they explain love. After delivering a clinical definition, one of the brainy docs adds, “there’s a little bit of magic.”
Paper Heart’s spurts of authentic poignance are tempered with a slightly smarmy self-awareness. Speaking in one of the DVD extras, Charlyne opens up about her fears, hurdles and surprises while making the film, which include amazement that people actually trusted her, fear of sounding dumb (an extra montage of her various verbal ticks is priceless, until it’s suddenly annoying), and trouble with talking (see previous). Of course, she can admit these fears on camera because fundamentally, Paper Heart is a smart, disarming film that tackles a universal subject.
Yet, its cavalier dismissal of the line between documentary and scripted stunt undermines some of its pure, emotional gems (unless, of course, the interviews are scripted, too). Plus, the hipster sensibility borders on smarminess in places — particularly in the DVD extras, where the stars’ young comedian friends show up to make fun of it all. Being too cute isn’t a crime in and of itself. It’s just disappointing when all that irony just serves to keep the subject of love at arm’s length.